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Welcome to the blog that's all about me (and that means a lot of NASCAR, college football and more NASCAR)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Brickyard 400 reflection: A 20-year journey to Indianapolis



One early Saturday morning in August 1996 I woke up earlier than I usually did. When you’re seven years old you only roll out of bed early on Saturday mornings in the summer for important things, and this Saturday may have changed the course of history forever in my life. That day my dad and I loaded up our family van and headed to this city that was, at the time to me, a faraway land called Indianapolis. That day we secured tickets to a NASCAR (then) Winston Cup Series race called the Brickyard 400.

A photo of the 96 Brickyard 400 (Ed Sanseverino Photography)
For years I had been watching NASCAR races on TV and listening to them on the radio when I couldn’t visibly see them. I was, by all accounts, a huge NASCAR fan. Living in Cincinnati was a problem for me though because most of the racing occurred in the southeast, way far away from my hometown. When NASCAR came to Indy for the third time in its history though, we scored tickets through a family friend.

Now my dad tried his darndest to get friends to go with him. No one could go. Most had other plans (and most were weddings of friends and family members) and had to decline. A week before the race my dad settled on the fact that he would tote me along and we would attend the race together.

Tickets were not cheap (if I recall correctly they were either $55 or $65 to sit in the turn three area where we ended up) so my mom and dad were worried about spending that kind of money on something I may not fully enjoy or sit through.

I’d say it was money well spent.

I remember very little about that day’s race. I know Dale Jarrett won, and after an early wreck Dale Earnhardt got out of his famed black No. 3 since he was injured a few weeks earlier in a wreck at Talladega. I know Mark Martin, my favorite racer, finished fourth and even led a few laps.

This photo of me is from 2003, the earliest known photo I have of me at IMS
I remember the drive up (and using a payphone at a gas station to dial the house of the family friend we were trying to find in a neighborhood by the speedway) and walking to the track. I remember seeing the flags atop the stands wave in the breeze, and I remember my dad lugging a small cooler with us to drink Coke and water during the race.

I remember eating at the house of the folks who hooked us up with tickets and the drive back to Cincinnati (where I fell asleep for most of the ride home).

Most of all I remember it being the start of my true NASCAR fandom which has manifested itself in so many more ways in the past 20 years. This year was our 16th trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Brickyard 400 (and if you include the day we drove up for the 1998 IROC race, our 17th journey to Speedway, Ind. for racing together). In 20 years my dad and I have seen just about everything on a race weekend.

Landon Cassill with my dad this year
I’ve gone from a fan to a media member, and we’ve gone from enjoying the weekend in the stands together to me running around pit road during the race, gathering photos and videos, while my dad hangs out in various stands and mounds in the infield, watching the action unfold in front of him.

I’ve written a number of posts through the years on how we have made this weekend an awesome one, and how I wish someday to make it a long-running family tradition (a fair note here is that every time I’ve written that it’s been a wistful thought to one day having a family.  Since I’m getting married in the future it’s actually a little more real now). NASCAR and Indianapolis will forever be linked to me because of that one day 20 years ago.

I’ve changed a lot. My dad has changed a lot too. We’ve grown older and learned a lot more. Our conversations now hinge on work and “real life” stuff like taxes and marriage (like I said in the proposal blog I wrote—linked above—I took my dad to see the ring I was buying before we traveled to Indy last month).

Honestly, NASCAR has changed a lot too, and my impetus for posting this, beyond the fact that I had slated to write this as part of my Brickyard 400 coverage (again, apologies, I had a slightly bigger thing on my mind that next week) is that on Monday NASCAR announced children under the age of 12 will be admitted free to all NASCAR Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series races starting in 2017.

NASCAR fans are awesome
NASCAR fans are an eclectic group of folks (despite all the stereotypes you may hear), but one thing they aren’t doing is getting younger. NASCAR made an awesome move on Monday to allow fans to bring their young children to the track for free because, as anyone who has attended a NASCAR race can tell you, the best way to experience the sport and get hooked on it, is by attending the event live.

“There really is no other experience like attending a NASCAR race in person, and that's especially true for kids,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR senior vice president and chief marketing officer, in a release from NASCAR. “So many children become lifelong NASCAR fans because their parents brought them to their first race, and this new ticket offering makes it even more affordable for families to create memories that will last a lifetime.”

Twenty years ago my dad paid for a ticket for his seven-year-old son to go to the third running of the Brickyard 400 with him. Now, it’s worth noting even under the new ticket deal that Cup races wouldn’t be free admission for kids, but, perhaps some local fans would take their kids to any number of close tracks for Xfinity Series races or Camping World Truck action if they get in for free.

Twenty years later my dad and I attended the Brickyard 400 in a different fashion than we did in 1996, but we still enjoyed our time together. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been to as many races as I have in the media capacity that I currently occupy.

Perhaps in 20 more years there will be more storylines and more happiness to share. It’s hard to believe that after 20 years we’re still making this journey, but there’s nowhere on this earth I would rather be on Brickyard 400 weekend than up in Speedway, Ind. with my dad.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

She Said Yes: A Proposal Story



I know I haven’t written a single word about the Brickyard 400 and that’s because one week after the race I had something bigger than the race planned out. I’m here to tell that story, but first, some background.

Last summer I was in the wedding party for Mike, a good friend of mine, and missed the race at Kentucky. It turns out that evening was the catalyst to start a relationship, something I’m admittedly not experienced at. See, before last year I hadn’t really had much luck with the ladies. It’s not that I was against relationships, I just had never really gotten too deep into one.

With my job and the hours I put in it became more and more difficult to get out, hang out and make any progress on relationships in my life. My friends and family all got used to seeing me less and less as years have passed by. Last year, though, as I got into this relationship, something was different.

Honestly, I didn’t think it would happen this way, but I’m happy it has. The night of Mike and Julie’s wedding was fun (despite missing Kyle Busch and Joey Logano battle door-to-door for the win at Kentucky Speedway) and after the wedding Mike’s sister Laura and I shared a long conversation that catapulted us to where we are today.

But what has transpired might have been derailed if I was serious about the crossroads I mentally faced one month before Mike and Julie’s wedding in July. The 2015 year was full of NASCAR races. I flew to Kansas to cover a race. I drove to Charlotte for the Coke 600 weekend. And as I left he media center after a rainy day in Michigan in mid-June I pondered about some day leaving my job here in Cincinnati to go chase the dream of working in NASCAR.

One special person changed all of that. As my summer ended last year I was worried. My schedule is jam packed once August starts and my luck with women was awful previously. Very few folks could find time for me and my wild, ever-changing schedule. Laura was different. Every time I brought up the insanity that is college football’s year-round grind, she didn’t blink.

So, on July 29, 2015 I asked Laura to be my girlfriend. One year later I planned a semi-elaborate plot to ask her another question, one a little more serious. Before my trek to Kentucky Speedway I headed to a local jewelry store to look at center stones for an engagement ring.

Before my dad and I started our annual journey to Indianapolis we stopped by the same jewelry store so I could show my dad what I was planning on doing less than a week later. I worked some white lies to try to throw Laura off my plan all week as she hunted around for some clues.

Our anniversary dinner was planned for a local, Westside Italian restaurant named Giovanni’s. My plan was to stop by the restaurant with a small camera and tell us they were working on a video for a Facebook promo. I drove by the restaurant on the Thursday evening before our planned dinner on Friday to find out the restaurant was closed.

Luckily I’ve spent a long time in college football and I’ve learned to adapt on the fly. I made a quick phone call to another local Italian eatery called Buona Vita in Dayton, Kentucky and alerted them to my plan.

So I apologize for not getting to write about NASCAR or the opening of my tenth football season here at UC. For that week after the Brickyard 400 all I could think about was getting to Friday night, getting to dinner and making sure I could pull off the easiest yet hardest question I’ve ever asked.

I’ve seen multiple people go through the process and each time I thought about how cool it must be to be in that person’s shoes. From my brother to multiple co-workers, I’ve seen the proposal process and the potential stress it could bring along. I was no different, mainly worrying about how I wouldn’t blow the surprise to Laura on the day of.

But I didn’t really blow it too badly. We had dinner and when the server came over with a camera I knew it was time to go.

The plan didn’t quite work like I had planned but I was able to talk to the camera about how we love going to that restaurant on “date nights” and then broke into my semi-pre-planned speech on how I love Laura more than the food at Buona Vita.

Fortunately, even after Laura got worried about the video being shot for Facebook, she was still good to say yes when I asked her to marry me.

She said yes, luckily for me...
For those that don’t know that much about either of us, just know that we make each other better people. Laura has caused me to slow down and take time to enjoy the little things in life. She also lets me love NASCAR, which is important to me. I have taught her, well, I’m sure I’ve taught her something in the past year, but it escapes me now (when Laura reads this she’ll send me a list of things I have taught her and I’ll amend this paragraph).

The days since my proposal have been filled with congratulations (thanks to all who have reached out via phone calls, text messages, Facebook notes and Tweets, it is truly awesome to hear from all of you) and early wedding planning. Naturally, the day after I proposed I spent the whole day at work and two days later the football season grind truly began. Such is the life with college football, but luckily as one of our assistant coaches noted to me, I’m marrying a woman who understands the grind I have to go through every fall.

Thanks for understanding the lack of posts recently. I’m sure by now most everyone who has read this understands. I’m hoping to have some NASCAR related posts up soon as time permits here at Camp Higher Ground. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ray Black Jr. looks forward to first run at historic Indy

Ray Black Jr. grew up in Florida, near Daytona, NASCAR’s historic track, but the history and prestige of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn’t lost on the 25 year old NASCAR Xfinity Series rookie who will race at the track for the first time this weekend.

Black Jr. finished 19th at Kentucky
“I always grew up watching it, the Indy 500 and the [Brickyard] 400 on the NASCAR side,” he said. “I think it’s an awesome place. They just started letting the Xfinity Series race there which is cool. It gives a lot more guys a chance to race there and feel those kinds of speeds.”

Black, who ran full time in the Camping World Truck Series last season, is in his first full-time season in the Xfinity Series this year, running for SS Green Light Racing. The team, sponsored by ScubaLife.com, has found itself fighting for top-20 finishes in their first season in the Xfinity Series together.

While Black battles for good finishes, he also understands the Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash system—this year with heat races at the four events—isn’t exactly a good set up for his team. Black noted that the risk is too steep for the reward. He does, however, use the qualifying races to get extra practice under his belt in his car.

Black Jr. used Bristol's Heat race as a mini test session
“For us it’s more of a test session,” Black said of the heat races, the final set of which will be run this weekend at Indy. “Even if we wanted to go race those it wouldn’t be smart. You could tear something up and you can’t bring your backup so that’s kind of shooting yourself in the foot at times. But it’s a good test session.”

Despite knowing their limits, Black and his team want to fight for a good finish. After all, there may be no more legendary track on the circuit than Indianapolis, a fact Black knows well.

“A lot of history there. Any time you get to go to somewhere like that, you only get to do it once a year and you don’t know when your last year will be so you try to soak it all in,” he said. “It’s a lot though.

“I know we have some extra practice time but once you get a feel for it you need to save your motor and put less miles on it because it’s a long race so you have to be aware.”

Black and his team will hit the track on Friday afternoon for some practice sessions and will race on Saturday at 3:30 on NBC Sports Network.